In northern Uganda, charcoal producers fled to the bush and left their unfinished woodworks behind as a result of a recent law prohibiting commercial charcoal production. They feared being apprehended by local authorities and subjected to abuse and detention.
However, their main concern is sustaining their source of income. Deo Ssenyimba, who has been a charcoal producer in the region for over a decade, argued that they cannot afford to stop as it would lead to theft due to the absence of other income options.
Amid concerns from locals about the environmental impact of unregulated tree-cutting, commercial charcoal production has become restricted in northern Uganda, despite being a traditional practice in African societies. However, charcoal producers continue to operate and supply the market, circumventing the rules. Meanwhile, vigilante groups have emerged, taking matters into their own hands to prevent the uncontrolled cutting of trees. Despite the restrictions, little has effectively changed in the business of charcoal production.
Northern Uganda, which is largely uninhabited and economically deprived, has become attractive to investors primarily because of its potential to sustain the charcoal business. Despite the region’s lush landscape, charcoal production has resulted in rapid deforestation due to the high demand for energy across Africa. According to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2018, up to 90% of Africa’s primary energy consumption requirements are met by charcoal.
Prior to the ban on charcoal production, community activists in regions like Gulu formed vigilante groups to combat deforestation caused by the business. Recently, a former lawmaker, Odonga Otto, led an attack on a truck carrying 380 bags of charcoal, resulting in charges of aggravated robbery. Despite the charges, Uganda’s chief justice praised Otto as a hero for his efforts in protecting the environment.
Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, who hails from northern Uganda, criticized the government’s lack of action against those involved in environmental destruction, noting that he had not heard of anyone being charged. He compared those who stole from environmental destroyers to those who stole from thieves, implying that they should not face repercussions. Shortly after Owiny-Dollo’s remarks, President Yoweri Museveni issued an executive order banning commercial charcoal production in northern Uganda. While this disrupted a long-standing cultural trade in the region, it is still permitted in other areas.
The ban on commercial charcoal production in northern Uganda was enacted following a climate change law passed in 2021 which granted local authorities across the country the power to regulate activities that are detrimental to the environment. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, but the process of burning charcoal emits this heat-trapping gas instead.
In a remote part of Gulu, located 335 kilometers (208 miles) from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a team of Associated Press journalists visited a charcoal production area, just days after President Museveni’s ban.
As the AP journalists entered the area, a local official, Patrick Komakech, who is the Chairman of Patiko Sub-County, heard someone running away and chased after them. When he arrived at the spot, he found a small patch of bamboo leading to a mostly barren area where trees had been cut down, with a few fresh stumps still visible. Komakech appeared anxious and close to tears.
In the area, the AP team observed heaps of timber in different spots, piled like contraband ivory, with grey smoke rising from one spot where it was being processed. Bags of charcoal were also seen, ready to be transported. The charcoal makers had erected small tents made of tarpaulin, draped in dry leaves, to sleep in.
As Komakech surveyed the area, he expressed his apprehension about the destruction caused by the charcoal makers, who he claims are imported into the area and show no mercy in cutting down trees and destroying vegetation. He stated that he was deeply disturbed by the situation.
In frustration, Komakech kicked some of the felled logs on the ground and identified them as belonging to the African Shea tree, which is prized by the region’s Acholi people for its fruit and oil, often used in cosmetics.
The charcoal makers eventually approached Komakech and argued that they were only trying to earn a living and respond to the demand for charcoal. However, Komakech refused to be sympathetic, insisting that their actions were detrimental to the environment and the livelihood of locals, including the Acholi people who depended on the African Shea tree.
Uganda’s growing population has made it important to use cost-effective energy sources, particularly charcoal. Charcoal is favored by households across the income spectrum, especially in urban areas, and is seen as ideal for dishes that require slow cooking. While middle-class families usually have both gas and charcoal stoves.
Charcoal makers, such as Peter Ejal, assert that they are not deliberately harming the environment and are just following the orders of people who sell the trees for charcoal production. Ssenyimba, his colleague, admitted that they had no plans of changing their business even after the government ban, and they would move on to another location once their operations are finished in the current area.
Some charcoal makers believe that even the State House uses charcoal from northern Uganda. Others blame landlords who have been selling charcoal-making rights per acre to interested investors.
The charcoal industry can be lucrative for both landowners and investors.
In nearby towns, a bag of charcoal can sell for around $14, but its price rises as it approaches Kampala. Ssenyimba revealed that he earns about $3 per bag of charcoal he produces.
An acre of land with ample trees in Gulu can cost up to $150, though the price may be lower in remote areas that are enriched with vegetation, and owned by poorer families. Investors usually hire people to cut down trees with power saws and machetes in designated areas until all the trees have been sold.
The district councils in the region earn money through licensing and taxes, and according to both Museveni and Otto, corrupt armed service members have been providing coverage for charcoal truckers. Otto, who is now heading groups of vigilantes against charcoal makers, is actively trying to combat this corruption.
Otto has been instrumental in impounding multiple trucks, including two that were recently seized and parked outside a police station. The seized vehicles drew a crowd, hoping to grab the goods. Otto plans to serve hundreds of local officials with letters of intent to sue for any lapses in protecting the environment. He aims to put a stop to charcoal production in the region, making other areas of Uganda lose interest in charcoal from his region.
Otto and his team of vigilantes actively target charcoal ovens in fields, destroy their bases, and aim to make the business of charcoal production highly risky. Their efforts seem to have been successful as there are no trucks carrying charcoal to be found after driving for hundreds of kilometers.
The ban on commercial production in northern Uganda is likely to cause a hike in the retail price of charcoal. Otto and others worry that charcoal dealers may attempt to circumvent authorities by transporting charcoal bags in small numbers, using passenger motorcycles to move them into towns where they can then be loaded into trucks discreetly.
Environmental activist Alfred Odoch in the region expressed his support for the work of vigilantes, stressing that charcoal making is “the biggest threat” that the region has faced since the end of a rebel insurgency over two decades ago.
Odoch also mentioned that vigilantes are putting pressure on charcoal burners and local officials to reduce “mass tree cutting” in northern Uganda. According to him, charcoal production should only be acceptable on a small scale by families who sell “two or three sacks” of charcoal per week, rather than large-scale commercial production.
Odoch expressed his support for other vigilantes who are also working to stop the destructive practice of charcoal production. He stressed that the fight for environmental justice is a collective effort, and it is not just the responsibility of one person or group.